Robots running things in Rotterdam

With its remote-controlled cranes, fully automated machines and wind-powered operations, APM Terminals’ Maasvlakte II terminal in the Port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands is setting new standards for the terminal industry.

About 300 people work at the terminal site in Massvlakte II. Of the 74 machines operating in the yard, 63 run on their own with no human intervention.

Rudy Muller would have no place in a traditional container shipping terminal, but in Maasvlakte II nothing is traditional. And his skill set is in high demand.

The Senior Manager of IT for the terminal, Muller comes from the logistics and robotics industry, specifically IT and technical automation in the warehousing sector, where automated operations have been standard for years.

“No other terminal has this level of automation and that’s exciting. Also, we’re just at the beginning: there will be a lot to gain with the software over the next months in terms of operational productivity,” he says.

Welcome to the future
Muller’s team of 26 people is responsible for 24-hour maintenance and care of the engine of the terminal operations – the IT systems and infrastructure which include more than 60 software applications and 300 servers that support and drive the equipment.

Rudy Muller, Senior Manager of IT for Maasvlakte II: “No other terminal has this level of automation and that’s exciting.” Photo: Rene Strandbygaard

Equipment engineers now work side by side with IT engineers from Muller’s team in the terminal Control Room, where all operations are overseen. Together they manage equipment breakdowns and other issues that can occur as a result of physical or software malfunction, or both.

“The potential from this kind of technical automation for operational efficiency and safety is enormous, and that’s what we are here to achieve,” says Muller. “Here it’s not physical labour but technical automation and software underpinning it all. You could say that the IT department has come out of the basement and onto the main floor.”

Sifting through terabytes
A long time before the terminal opened for commercial business last year, Rik Geurtsen had a good idea of what Maasvlakte II would be capable of. As Senior Project Manager for Operations at the new terminal, he saw it all in action – and dozens of versions of it – on a computer screen.

“Computer simulations allowed us to start with the productivity target and other factors that we knew, such as vessel size and the vessel type that would call at the terminal as well as expected delays, and to build from there with different yard layouts and different equipment,” says Geurtsen.

Now that the terminal is moving into full operations, a shift is occurring.

“We have to move from what we think is the best way to work based on the computer simulations to testing what is the best way to work based on the operational data we’re collecting and analysing,” says Patrick Brehmer, the Operations Expert on Geurtsen’s team and member of the newly formed Process Excellence department.

Patrick Brehmer
Patrick Brehmer, Operations Expert Waterside at Maasvlakte II.
Robots terminal

A game-changer port
“APM Terminals Maasvlakte II is clearly a game-changer port in the shipping industry,” says Kim Fejfer, CEO of APM Terminals.

“It is significantly safer for our people and all users of the port. It runs on a zero-emissions, sustainable business model that uses renewable energy. And equally important, our clients will experience higher productivity thanks to the automation. As the new pacesetter in our portfolio, we believe it will define our industry leadership in the years ahead,” he says.

The communication between the machines and the computers is stored in two data centres nearby, each the size of a large meeting room and consisting of eight server racks.

With each day of real operations this is a growing treasure trove of data for Process Excellence, a team comprised of experts in IT and operations that will be working continuously through every performance failure logged in the systems to find the root cause and fix it.

Fine-tuning over time
Based on the yard design and with full automation, Maasvlakte II eventually expects to be 25-50% better in terms of container moves per hour than any other terminal in Northern Europe. But it won’t happen right away – it will take time.

“We have a clear focus to deliver the perfect terminal, although the ultimate potential will not be realised on day one,” says Frank Tazelaar, Managing Director of APM Terminals Maasvlakte II.

“We have a plan to roll out more complex functionalities in software and advanced logistics concepts after achieving the stable baseline performance in real operations. Access to rich data will drive our continuous improvement going forward.”

Of course, having all the data doesn’t mean it’s going to be easier to achieve high performance from the MVII terminal, but it does make it easier to identify the causes of poor performance.

“Improving it from there is a different challenge because we may have to fix systems, reprogramme a vehicle, interview a crane operator or all of the above,” says William Rengelink, Technical Integration Manager for the project. “But no doubt having the data gives us a huge advantage for reaching our performance targets.”

Gaming with cranes
The IT teams aren’t the only new faces in the terminal office. No one is more surprised to be inside than the ship-to-shore crane drivers, now called Remote Operators. Eight of these workers (soon to be ten) occupy a space larger than the IT department.

Jean Pierre
The ship-to-shore cranes are remotely controlled using a joystick and multiple viewing screens. Jean-Pierre Tromp is a remote operator at Maasvlakte II.

When we heard about the new terminal three years ago, and that the cranes would be operated with joysticks and screens from the office, none of us believed it. We thought ‘No way,’ because you won’t feel or hear the crane and the boxes. But we’re doing it, and for the most part, it’s better.


“When we heard about the new terminal three years ago, and that the cranes would be operated with joysticks and screens from the office, none of us believed it,” says 46-year-old Jean-Pierre Tromp. “We thought ‘No way,’ because you won’t feel or hear the crane and the boxes. But we’re doing it, and for the most part, it’s better.”

Tromp has 14 years’ experience at APM Terminals’ other non-automated terminal in Rotterdam, and was one of the first Remote Operators hired nearly two years ago. Today he spends most of his time as an instructor.

Culture shift

Being inside an office has its advantages, he says, including being able to simply stand up and stretch. But the change in the work is significant and Crane Drivers must learn to adjust to being Remote Operators.

One big change is the view. Instead of a glass floor to look directly through at the containers below, Remote Operators have six screens showing multiple camera angles with the ability to zoom in anywhere for a closer look.

“The view can actually be better, but the operator has to learn it. There’s no 3D with screens, so to measure distances with our eyes we need to use the different camera angles we have and tools like a distance metre and that takes some getting used to,” he says.

And then there’s the quiet. Crane drivers are used to being shaken as boxes are moved, hearing loud banging and feeling the whirr of the crane cabin as it moves back and forth over the ship.

“No one can start out as a Remote Operator. You have to know how it feels in your body, your hands and your senses when you lift a heavy box and put it down again,” says Tromp. “It’s a new skill, a different skill, but one that allows me to use my past experience. Like I said, none of us thought this was possible, yet here we are; it’s exciting.”